Mind the gap? Division Two 2003-04

Ed Parkinson is delighted Hartlepool's stars are no longer thought worth a transfer to Chelsea as Stamford Bridge seems worlds apart from Victoria Park

As a follower of a newly promoted club who just achieved their highest league placing in 94 years of grim struggle, it’s tempting to view the Second Division through heavily rose-tinted specs. To me it seems a delightful, cheerful and friendly division which all clubs should visit regularly. A survey of the changes in the division since Hartlepool’s last visit in 1991 shows that rigorous asset-stripping of promoted teams seems to have fallen out of fashion. In 1991 the winners of the old Fourth Division were gleefully dismantled by middle-aged men in sheepskin coats – any promoted side would lose three or four key players to big clubs (defined as anyone who was in the First Division, had ever won a major trophy, or just had a big ground). This year all three upwardly mobile arrivals retained nine or ten of their first-choice promotion team.

The high stakes attached to failure in the higher divisions have frightened managers into looking for “proven” recruits from abroad or from relegated clubs – few look below them. In 1991 Chelsea bought Hartlepool’s top scorer Joe Allon; in 2004 Eifion Williams’ prospects of boarding the gravy train to Stamford Bridge seem remote. Paul Hall, one of the best attacking wing-backs I’ve seen, remains at Rushden. Bristol City’s superb goalkeeper Steve Phillips and dynamic midfielder Tom Doherty almost made it up through the play-offs, but a few years ago neither would have been with the club at the beginning of the season. The number of foreign players in the Premier League and, to a lesser extent, the First Division has combined with nervous management and the academies to all but end the concept of buying “prospects” and bringing them on; building a reputation strong enough to secure a major move up can now take three years rather than three months. The same situation seems to apply to managers, where only Paul Sturrock’s move from Plymouth to Southampton fitted the old pattern of cherry-picking managers from below.

To the national media this seems a bad thing and there is much wringing of hands at the lack of opportunities being afforded to young British players and managers. It is deemed damaging to the national interest, but I don’t care about that. In fact I’m delighted to see smaller clubs retain good young players for longer, hang on to man­agers for a reasonable length of time and pick up out-of-contract higher-division players on shorter contracts by paying sensible wages.

In 1991 the old Fourth was full of strangely mis-shapen teams. Players were tall but skinny, fast but tiny, big but slow and of course skilful but fat/lazy. All teams played route one or, at a push, used wingers to lob crosses towards the big slow lad up front. It was disappointing to discover that the old Third offered more uniformity of size, shape and speed in terms of personnel but not much improvement in the football played. You just had 11 big, strong and basically fit lads belting the ball forward in a less random manner.

This year I only saw two genuinely poor matches and both were played in dire weather. Usually, one or both sides tried to pass the ball and often played it out of defence. Some teams even indulged in keeping possession until good use could be made of the ball, although the risk of triggering apoplexy in the traditionalist hardcore thankfully kept this trend to a respectable level. Both promoted QPR and champions Plymouth passed well and attacked with pace, control and invention. All the play-off sides and some that just missed out aspired to the same standards but couldn’t pull it off consistently. Even those heading for relegation didn’t try to simply hack their way clear of trouble.

On top of all this fine football the struggles of a few self-styled big clubs (Sheffield Wednesday and Luton) provided pleasure for many, while the collapse of the former rich man’s toy that is Rushden & Diamonds brought much delight.

As lower-division attendances keep rising, most commentators ascribe this to a Premiership trickle-down effect. In fact, much the same sort of people who always watched are still watching, but there are more of them and they turn up more often because the football is better than it was. That may sound a little bit too simple, but I think it might be true.

From WSC 209 July 2004. What was happening this month